Confused about fish? I was until half an hour ago. And here all this time I assumed that I had a firm grasp of the Church’s abstinence requirements! My understanding has been that, in the United States, you must do penance on Friday, and "no meat" is the default if you haven’t chosen something else.
But after reading comments in the previous post about Lenten recipes, I wasn’t so sure anymore and thought I’d better do some fact checking. I was a bit surprised
to discover that in the US penance is not mandatory (that is, binding under pain of sin)—except during Lent! Let’s just say that the teaching of the U.S. bishops on the subject is “nuanced” . . . the teaching was promulgated in 1966 and we Americans still don’t get it!
So here goes, in the universal Church, according to the Code of Canon Law (1983), Book IV, Part III, Title II, Chapter II:
Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.
Well, our bishops took full advantage of Canon 1253 to “terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.” Instead, they urge us to “voluntary self-denial and personal penance” and “freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.”
I must recommend, if you are as confused as I was about abstinence, that you take time to read the short document from which I pulled our bishops’ teaching, Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. Nuanced it might be, but I sorely wish that I had been better catechized in this regard, because by it our bishops have done something simple and beautiful for us.
They are “confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice” and they have released us from obligation “in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.” In other words, our bishops have respected and trusted us in this matter. They held up to us the ideal of humility and intentional mercy, to the glory of God.
But as will happen, most American Catholics have let themselves off the fish hook, so to speak. Penance on Friday never occurs to most of us if it’s not during Lent. So now our bishops are considering whether they should reinstate the former discipline.
What a shame that would be, even if they have to do it for our good. Right now we have the freedom to live as responsible Christian adults, making loving choices, willingly sacrificing, and giving glory to God. Will our “dads” have to ground us kids? Maybe not. With clearer catechesis and a stronger effort from us, maybe it won’t be necessary.
You can download a PDF of the pastoral statement at http://www.usccb.org/lent/2008/Penance_and_Abstinence.pdf.
“. . . let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God's people.”— United States Catholic Bishops, in Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence